My colleague Nader Hashemi and I have a new edited book out examining what we call the sectarianization of Middle East politics. It is published by Hurst in the UK (and worldwide) and by OUP in North America. This nifty video trailer for the book was produced by the talented Simeon Tennant.
The excellent Books pages at the National have published an extract from our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” (now available in the US too). Before the extract comes an introduction to the book and the situation.
The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview two of the leading Syria experts in the world, Steven Heydemann and Joshua Landis, about the “big picture” of the Syrian conflict and the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East today, as part of the CMES Conversations series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Landis, while best known as a blogger and commentator on Syria, is an historian. Heydemann is a political scientist who has written an influential study of Syrian politics covering the years 1946-1970.
The two interviews offer contrasting perspectives, but both take us several steps back from the news cycle and place the events unfolding in the region today in a wider historical, comparative and global lens. This was the focus of the forum that brought them to Denver, “Sectarianization: ISIS, the Syrian Conflict & the Future of the Middle East”. Sectarianization will be a central focus of our in the coming months, and is the theme of the book my colleague Nader Hashemi and I are currently co-editing (our last book being The Syria Dilemma).
Steven Heydemann is Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He’s the author of Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970, the editor of War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East and co-editor of Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran.
Our interview revolves largely around Heydemann’s far-reaching report “Syria’s Uprising: sectarianism, regionalisation, and state order in the Levant”, published by the European think tank FRIDE. Have a look:
Joshua Landis is Associate Professor in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Director of the Center for Middle East Studies. Widely regarded as one of the leading Syria experts in the world, he is the former President of the Syrian Studies Association. He writes and edits the widely-read blog Syria Comment.
Our interview revolves principally around two of his recent articles: “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant” and “Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign”. Have a look:
Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.
Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.
From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.
Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).
Nader Atassi (of the great Darth Nader blog) takes on the twin myths that the Syrian regime is Alawi and that the revolution is Sunni. To divide and rule, the Assad regime has cleverly exploited sectarian tensions for decades. (A great Syrian blogger of previous years, Karfan – or ‘Disgusted’ – described the regime’s repression of the Alawi community and its religion here – a must read.)
For the first time there is proof of a large-scale massacre of Alawis – the heterodox Shia offshoot sect to which Bashaar al-Assad belongs – by Islamist extremists among Syrian opposition forces. In its context, this disaster is hardly surprising. It follows a string of sectarian massacres of Sunni civilians (in Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas, and elsewhere), the sectarian ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from areas of Homs province, and an assault on Sunni sacred sites such as the Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, the Umawi mosque in Aleppo, and the Omari mosque in Dera’a. It follows two and a half years of rape, torture and murder carried out on an enormous scale by a ‘Syrian’ army commanded by Alawi officers and backed by sectarian Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and by Alawi irregular militias. Assad and his backers have deliberately instrumentalised sectarian hatred more effectively than the Americans did in Iraq, and they must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dissolution of Syria’s social mosaic. Next, the counter-revolutionary forces in the West (chief among them the United States) must be blamed for obstructing the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army, a policy which has inevitably strengthened the most extreme and sectarian jihadist groups (some of whom, such as the foreign-commanded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are actively fighting the Free Army). Human Rights Watch’s important report on the massacre of Alawi villagers is summed up in the video below. Sadly, HRW fails to adequately distinguish between Syrian and foreign, and moderate and extremist anti-Assad militias. The excellent EAWorldview critiques the report here. Its conclusion:
The HRW report illustrates the dangers of conflating the various factions of the insurgency under the heading “armed opposition groups”.
Coincidentally, that conflation is a tactic of the regime who seeks to portray the insurgency as extremist-led, largely foreign fighters rather than an extension of the indigenous protest movement that took up arms after Assad’s forces used violence to quash it from March 2011.
By this conflation, HRW (a fine organisation which has done great work in uncovering the truth of the Syrian conflict) veers dangerously close to the orientalist/racist stereotyping of the Syrian people’s struggle now dominant in both the rightist and liberal/leftist Western media.
It goes without saying that the crimes committed against Alawi civilians in northern Lattakia province are grotesque and idiotic, and constitute another strategic blow against the revolution and the survival of the Syrian state.